The apostle Paul’s unwavering endurance through suffering
Though I don’t find it especially helpful to compare our sufferings with those of another, I’m willing to break that rule this one time. The apostle Paul makes a surprisingly emphatic statement when writing to the church in Corinth. If he were a healthy, wealthy man of prestige and power, we probably wouldn’t notice. Paul, however, lived at the bottom, crawling his way through one affliction after another. Yet, he says, “We do not lose heart” (2Co 4:16). Despite perpetual adversity, he claims to have immunity from despair.
I joined the cross-country team during my freshman year in high school. After one practice, I had serious reservations about my judgment. The coach loaded us onto a bus in the August heat, dropped us off ten miles from school, and told us to jog back. “We’ll find out what you’re made of,” he said. I lacked water, training, and even proper running shoes. He tested my endurance as never before.
Less than two miles later, I was prepared to hold out my thumb and hitch a ride back to school, but the coach must have anticipated that possibility because he chose a road without any traffic. I had to continue on foot one way or another. My mind protested. My body protested even louder, but I didn’t have a choice. If I wanted to return home, my weary legs would have to carry me.
At the two-mile mark, ten miles felt like twenty. At five miles, it may as well have been fifty. With each step, I plotted my escape, desperately searching for a way to end the misery. To borrow a phrase from Paul, I did lose heart (2Co 4:16). My spirit quickly became just as unwilling as my flesh was weak. I say this to my shame. I was a healthy, happy, and energetic teenager who couldn’t jog ten miles, or even two, without thoughts of quitting.
Paul was afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2Co 4:8, 9). He ran well over ten miles while angry mobs cracked whips and hurled stones at him. He persevered despite violent hostility against him, his aging body, and his physical disabilities, not to mention his mental and emotional stresses. From his conversion to Christianity to the day of his martyrdom, he fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2Ti 4:7). All the while, he did not lose heart (2Co 4:16).
Almost immediately after becoming a Christian, the Jews in Damascus were watching the gates day and night in order to kill Paul, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket (Ac 9:23-25).
In Antioch, the Jews were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him (Ac 13:45). They incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and his traveling companion, Barnabas, and drove them out of their district (Ac 13:50).
In Iconium, the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against Paul and his Christian brothers (Ac 14:2). The people of the city became divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled (Ac 14:4-6).
In Lystra, Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead (Ac 14:19).
In Philippi, the magistrates tore the garments off Paul and co-laborer Silas and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks (Ac 16:22-24).
In Thessalonica, the Jews were jealous of Paul, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, where Paul had stayed (Ac 17:5). Following him to Berea, the Jews from Thessalonica came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds (Ac 17:13).
And this was merely the beginning. As Paul would later recount:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)
Paul writes candidly about his immense suffering. To be clear, he isn’t a masochist who takes perverse pleasure in his pain. He’s a human being susceptible to the same weaknesses and discouragements as the rest of us, yet he does not lose heart (2Co 4:16). He is afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2Co 4:8, 9). Quitting is impossible for him. He cannot be utterly dejected. The world delivers one crushing blow after another, yet he remains as determined and content as ever.
The question is, how?